Publication Date

December 2, 2021

Perspectives Section

Member Spotlight, Perspectives Daily

Russell Spinney is a high school history teacher and independent historian at the Thacher School. He lives in Ojai, California, and has been a member since 2010.

Russell Spinney

Russell Spinney

Alma maters: BA (history/German and Japanese languages), Colgate University, 1995; MA (German studies), Middlebury College, 1999; PhD (modern German history/emotions studies), Penn State University

Fields of interest: modern Germany, Soviet Union/Russia, emotions studies, anti-Semitism, fascism

Describe your career path. What led you to where you are today?

The economic crisis of 2008 and its impact on academia forced me to question the conventional approaches to the academic job market and think outside the boxes I had made for myself. I began to explore new opportunities in different kinds of public and private educational institutions, prisons, and nonprofit work that ultimately led me back to the high school level and continue to inform how I work on world and US history curriculum in the schools where I teach and connect students’ research, writing, and alternative demonstrations of learning to the communities we serve or could serve better.

What do you like the most about where you live and work?

The proximity to the mountains and the sea.

What projects are you currently working on?

Professionally, I continue to research and write on the history of emotions in the Weimar Republic, especially in terms of everyday forms of anti-Semitic practice in the towns of central Germany. I also continue to help foster emotions studies in the German Studies Association’s Emotions Studies Network that I helped found. This year we are exploring how emotions studies inform how we teach and what we teach in our classrooms. At the high school level, I continue to work on developing more advanced independent student research and writing through the introduction of the concept of historiography and by allowing students to explore their interests on a wide range of topics in US and world history and current events. Additionally, I am helping to infuse new scholarship, voices, and perspectives into our US and world history courses. We are currently developing a new ethnography and auto-ethnography curriculum for the onboarding of students entering our school. We are opening up more global studies across our curriculum, adding more Indigenous studies along with more African American and Latinx studies that offer students historical cases in the struggle for justice and models for change, and starting new interdisciplinary initiatives with our science department in ethnobotany with the potential to help local Chumash language and cultural revitalization efforts.

Have your interests evolved since graduation? If so, how?

Absolutely, as the world has changed, I have had to reflect on my early career choices and be open to think outside of the proverbial boxes that have led me back to working with high school students, which is arguably where there is so much important work to be done to help young people see how fun and interesting history can be and how history informs us and what we can do. As I have moved from the east coast of the US and places like New York City and Baltimore to Santa Fe and now Ojai, California, I have also become more aware of the diversity of Indigenous places and nations across the Americas and, really, the world.

What’s the most fascinating thing you’ve ever found at the archives or while doing research?

The corporeal memories of young people in the memories collected through oral history testimony: they are seemingly insignificant and rare, but they offer glimpses into the historical context of feelings, the interactions of individuals with the world around them, everyday forms of politics and power and the meanings these memories take on over time.

Is there an article, book, movie, blog etc. that you could recommend to fellow AHA members?

Nonfiction: The recent Frederick Douglass biography by David W. Blight; fiction: The Nightwatchman by Louise Erdrich. Both well-written, timely reads!

What do you value most about the history discipline?

The tools of critical thinking, research, and writing; the ability to look across the grain of archival sources or any source of information, and the ability to perceive the threads of history and how we might more critically engage in the world with meaningful purpose.

Why is membership in the AHA important to you?

AHA membership helps keep me connected to what is going on in our profession, new books, and perspectives.

AHA members are involved in all fields of history, with wide-ranging specializations, interests, and areas of employment. To recognize our talented and eclectic membership, Perspectives Daily features a regular AHA Member Spotlight series.

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Matthew Keough
Matthew Keough

American Historical Association